By Carla Tofano
On my 14th birthday my parents took me to an artist studio to get my portrait done as a surprise present. I was a shy teen suffering the ugly duckling phase, so I was, frankly, mortified to sit for a real artist. He asked me to find a spot on his studio wall and focus on it while he drew me, to keep my face still, so I held my breath and did what I was told. I remember being fascinated by strange curios, canvasses piled everywhere, notes and sketches pencilled all over the rough white-washed walls of his remote cottage – the new kind of a chaotic artistic freedom that was so different from a normal tidy “proper” house I knew growing up… He put a sepia stick to the paper, then took a step back and said: “You will be an extraordinary-looking woman when you grow up.”
I didn’t really believe him, but it was such a thrill, and I was hooked. I was captivated with the idea that the way other people see me is quite separate from my own complexes, insecurities, and how I see myself in the mirror.
(His was in fact the kind of house that I ended up with as a grown-up, a colourful mess covered in artistic chaos).
When I moved to London with a small suitcase and a heart full of idealistic anglophilic fancies, I never intended to become a model. Modelling was just “free money for being young”, a by-product of the need to pay rent and tube fare to fabulous adventures. Amongst random jobs as a hairdressers model, a pin-up girl on an alt site, some shady bartending gigs in Soho, catwalks and fashion shoots, I ended up getting my kit off at a local art school. My beloved dandy Quentin Crisp was a life model, and I read his books about being the Naked Civil Servant with a passionate abandon! I loved it (and ended up getting a fine art scholarship from that artschool too.)
This job is still burdened by a frustratingly misjudged presumption of the “life hack” type stories as one of many unskilled jobs anybody broke should have a go at – somewhere between envelope stuffing and selling your hair for profit. It really is not that simple!
A model is a vessel for magic between an artist and the page. What we are, what we do is literally magical. The effect can be brief and instantaneous, or long and painfully drawn out, but in the end, the muse-hood is collaborative and powerful.
Alas, life models have no union, and the recommended pay rate has not gone up in decades. We are often left in cold uncomfortable unsupervised rooms, sometimes open to general public who have no respect nor idea of etiquette. The success of a life drawing group utterly depends on the reliability, professionalism and dedication of the model, yet they still often get offered less than London Living Wage (which was £10.20ph in 2017).
I knew we needed to start a movement that reclaims pride in the profession by being the best we can. We, professional art models with keen eye in posing, styling, lighting, communicating with artists, are worth a better pay than some “organiser” with a stopwatch and a room! I knew we could use our skills, following and experience to take the middle man out of the equation of creating excellent life drawing sessions. We made this collective to claim a fair pay scheme between life models based on equal profit share, while creating exquisite tableaux vivants – with multiple models – for the artists to draw at the regular ticket price.
The co-founder of AMC, the amazing firecracker of a woman that is Carla, impressed me with her beautiful mind and stunning hourglass curves first time I met her, but it wasn’t long before I fell in love with her beautiful, generous soul. She is a true dream to have as a colleague, partner and friend. She levels my anxieties and inspires me when I’m frustrated; Carla lights up my world with her smile, support, ideas, nutritious snacks (you’d be surprised how important those are in life model’s busy schedule!), and a suitcase full of outfits and props she brings to the AMC sessions in even the highest-heeled platforms through London’s rush hour.
Jason Atomic is the “glamorous assistant” in our sessions! Jason has been holding the stopwatch for me in life drawing events way before AMC. He’s my partner in crime, life and work, and I appreciate his ongoing support – even though I know he hates me when I ask him to take docu photos, rather than be drawing us for the billionth time!
Being in a collective is a great challenge – this is not one of those gigs where you just turn up and get your kit off. We all work bloody hard at this project, but it’s a labour of love, and we absolutely believe in its success.
“Nudity is trivial,” said Karl Lagerfeld. I love fashion, costumes, characters… But when I’m nude and anonymous at a life-drawing class in a purely academic setting, artists distort my face and body shapes to suit themselves, to which I submit quietly and happily. It is typical of artists to mould me into their vision, which is one of the biggest thrills of this job.
Even if the drawer meticulously measures my proportions against the end of their pencil, more often than not their taste will warp the reality, subconsciously taking over and twisting the lines. That’s the curious result of the process of my visual image getting translated through someone’s living eye, their brain, past experiences, desires, tastes; then into the skill of hand-eye coordination, and then finally into the decisive, artistic, technical way they apply their charcoal, paintbrush, apple pencil, clay…
From the perspective of a model who did a million photoshoots, this was the new thrill to me. The most rewarding result of a job as a life model is seeing oneself not as you are, but as someone else sees you.
While I model (and some sustained poses can go on for as long a 60 hours), I need to find a way to entertain myself, as I distract myself from the physical strains… Sometimes I replay my favourite movies in my head (RHPC, song by song, line by line!), or try to recall poems I learnt as a child in a foreign language. Sometimes I pretend to be a lizard bathing in a desert sun (i.e. a humming heater frying my right leg!).
Sometimes I spray some old perfume to induce a memory of a past relationship. Or I think how I love my cat, very sloooowwwwly, visualising her softness and beauty, from her whiskers to her bean-toes.
Sometimes, I just count how many breaths a body takes in 20 minutes.
Sometimes I am just completely blank and still. It might sound corny, but when you are constantly on your computer, phone or being distracted by human interactions around you, having some time of pure nothingness is a kind of a glorious relief.
But definitely the best of times are when I get to sit for workshops taught by artists I admire, and get to listen to their tutoring.
Obviously Quentin Crisp… Gala Dalí, Michèle Lamy, Divine, Edie Sedgwick, Elizabeth Ist, Iggy, Ziggy, Nureyev, and hundreds of other people of intense style, power, fragility, strength, suffering, success, failure…
I’ll let you in on a secret… I like to channel my idols. For example, if I feel that I’m lacking an old school glamour before I step on the set, in my head I might pretended to be Candy Darling – the transsexual Warhol superstar who was more feminine than I could ever be, and although I bet she was mostly quite insecure to have been born in a male body, the fact which makes it that much more powerful to me, because she had to work extra hard to become the glamorous woman I adore, and that’s the energy that I am trying to “borrow”. I’m evoking a mythical archetype that empowers me. Venus or Patsy Stone… it’s quite magical, and it always works.
After doing a shoot for Suicidegirls at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC (a genderfuck photo story about Sid & Nancy), I was roaming the art-laden corridors of the legendary hotel in search of rock’n’roll ghosts, when a short British chap in a hat startled me in an empty hallway with an invite to his studio… He turned out to be a Royal Academician, and gave me a huge wad of green notes for 15 minutes of sketching me as I danced around his studio dressed as Sid Vicious high on Adderall. I saw his life sketch of Quentin Crisp in his studio, it literally took my breath away.
My idea of self is a fragile and volatile thing, I am insanely over-analytical and I rarely recognise myself in photos and drawings done by anyone but myself. I dwell in a body dysmorphic disorder, and that’s the magic of the job as a life model, seeing oneself not as you are, but as someone else sees you.
A sculpture tutor once commented on the portrait busts of me at the end of the first year course of 18 students: “And here are eighteen different ways to offend your beauty.” I didn’t feel that way at all, it was heady (excuse the pun) and infinitely thrilling. But then what do I know? Once I hugged a life-size sculpture of me, perfectly measured with callipers, cast in resin, wigged and painted lifelike (not unlike at the Madam Tussaud’s Museum), and I felt my doppelganger creature shockingly delicate, small and frail, not at all how I see myself. It was shocking and wonderful!
Honestly every session turns me into a bundle of nerves! It’s not just me getting my look on for the character of the theme – aside from regular life model routine like shaving, doing my hair, slapping on makeup, and covering my bruises with foundation, I need to also remember to sharpen the pencils, light the set, bring stage props, and attend to a dozen other tasks (which I truly love doing, no complaints!)
And then, the good old fret “is anyone gonna even turn up tonight?”…
So I am simultaneously excited and anxious every time, – yet every time afterwards, while we cheers the post-session drinks with our gang, I’m pleasantly surprised how well it went!
AMC sessions are a huge success specifically thanks to the faithful crowd of regular artists who believe in us and support us. For example, once we had a last-minute venue change, which we moved to a local pub and had a packed session! Our AMC gang is what makes our success, I can never thank enough to our followers. When I see the artwork at the end of the session, I am amazed that they “got ” what we were trying to project, mesmerised by how they did it, and I secretly cry tears of relief that we didn’t fail them.
It’s definitely a tease – while I pose, a part of me is always desperate to be on the other side of the easel! Rest assured that, while I pose, my hands are always twitching in envy of your pencils. I love life drawing and I never get enough of a chance!
Perhaps one day we should hold a session in a mirrored dance studio… I give the audience a back pose, while I draw them in a mirror – you draw me, I draw the audience…. Oh what a glorious thought!
One of the perks of jobs at art schools (which are often poorly paid) is to be able to listen to the tutoring of brilliant artists. The gap in pay is made up by the value of the second-hand tutoring to a life model who also dabbles in art! Hearing the exact measurements of specific oil paint colours that make up my skin tone is geekily satisfying indeed.
I love drawing my fellow models at the life drawing groups of friends, such as Art Macabre or Flesh and Bones, who kindly invite me partake in their sessions as an artist for a change. We pose at each other’s events and hire each other to pose for ours. Life drawing scene in London is prevalent, unique and absolutely wonderful!
Naturally, we always invite our fellow models to AMC sessions to come and draw at no entry price, which many of them do on a regular basis. (Tatiana, Lily, Ed, Sara, etc).
Some months back I said: I want to pose with Carla at the Royal Opera House, held up by corps de ballet, dressed by Alexander McQueen, amongst lavish sets by Pierre et Gilles, set to the live score by Royal Symphony Orchestra, shot by David LaChapelle and drawn by da Vinci, Modigliani, Schiele, Dix and Salvador Dali, – then written about by Sartre and Bukowski – hey, you did ask for a dream!
But since modelling with Art Model Collective, we were dressed by my dream fashion houses – from Rachel Freire and Rob Goodwin to Torture Garden Latex. We’ve had insanely dreamy life drawing sessions where our poses were serenaded by a live violinist, cellist, pianist and an opera singer! We’ve held tribute sessions to Modigliani, Schiele, Bukowski, to which artists responded in most gorgeous ways, which really have scratched the itch of my “wanting” the improbable.
So perhaps a new dream session would be posing with Carla as miniature versions of ourselves in one of my dollshouses, where I construct tiny interiors of alternate realities.
Today, I’d like us to be posing in a derelict mansion house in a vineyard surrounded by goats, painted by Nicola Samori, styled by Francesco Colluci (who dresses the shop windows of TRAID from donated charity shop items), illuminated with tech couture by Rachel Freire, and drawn by YOU!
Can we transport us into my own dollshouses too? With 3D printing, that’s not exactly a supernatural flight of fancy either…. Watch this space!
The last word is by Manko:
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